science of us

The Anxiety of Waiting to Be Laid Off

Photo: Chad Springer/White Door Photo/Getty Images/Image Source

We knew the layoffs were coming long before they actually came — like a storm lurking ever closer on the skyline, or the T. rex in Jurassic Park. There was no official announcement at the magazine I worked for, just a month or so of grim, quiet murmurs of Hey, heads up, it might be this week. We didn’t know precisely when, but, yikes, it had to be soon if they wanted to get it over with before the holidays.

So the day I got laid off was, in a way, the last day in a whole long, uneasy season of getting laid off. It dawned on me that I was one of the casualties  the afternoon I sent a rare third follow-up email asking for my boss’s blessing on my Thanksgiving vacation dates. I wanted to get my flights booked. Again, he didn’t respond.

Wait. Is it possible that … oh, God. I frowned at my computer screen. What does he know that I don’t?

Soon, “the vacation email” and its eerie non-response had crawled in and lodged itself in my thoughts, parasite-like, scratching at my brain at night while I tried to fall asleep. To this day I don’t know whether it was a mundane act of email negligence or my boss not wanting to lie to me, but sure enough, by the time I went home for Thanksgiving, I was out of a job.

* * *

Layoff season — budget-cut season, workforce-reduction season, “adjusting to shifts in demand” season – comes to companies toward the end of the year the way Santa comes to your house on Christmas when you’re a kid: swiftly, silently, and clockwork-dependably, except that one leaves you presents and the other threatens to abscond with your health insurance. And invariably, layoff season brings its own particular type of extended anxiety: the kind that comes from knowing that one day in the near future, you might get called into a conference room, subjected to a corporate version of the “it’s not you, it’s me” speech by an HR representative you’ve never seen before, and informed you have a few hours before your key card stops working and a few weeks or months before you stop getting an income — or, you might not. And you just have to keep showing up for work, positive attitude and team-player mind-set intact, until the day of reckoning arrives. Someone somewhere knows whether your job is safe, but you don’t. You are Schrödinger’s employee.

In many cases, the waiting is worse than the layoff itself. This is what many a laid-off staffer would tell you, and so would UCLA sociology professor Jennie Brand: When she co-authored a study on the effects of job loss and job insecurity on mental health, she and her fellow researchers found that people with chronic job insecurity had worse mental-health outcomes. “It would seem that waiting around thinking that a loss is impending, whether or not it actually occurs or if it was a realistic expectation, seems to have a really negative impact on psychological conditions,” she says.

One 28-year-old I talked to, a former digital news editor for a magazine, remembers workplace morale taking a nosedive after a new editor-in-chief arrived, intent on overhauling the whole publication.

“We all assumed, because we know how these things work, that there would be layoffs. There always are when a new editor-in-chief is installed and they want to take the brand in a different direction,” she says. And it didn’t help that the new boss had brought friends.

“At the start of her overhaul, the new editor and the people on her team that she managed to bring over [to work for her] would spend a lot of time amongst themselves,” she says. “That created a lot of tension.” An inner circle was forming, and everybody outside it was acutely aware.

“It was like going to work in a morgue. Everyone was very tense and nervous and unhappy and scared,” she remembers. “Some people were very, very confident they were going to be laid off, but they still had to come into work every day.” She eventually lost her job in what she refers to now as “wave two” of a stealthy multi-stage operation.

Waiting around to find out if your job is being axed can be a drain on productivity, too. Sarah, a 26-year-old writer based in Toronto, found out last summer that the digital media company that employed her would be laying off ten staffers within three weeks. Suddenly, it was difficult to focus on the work part of work. “It was all anyone could talk about,” she says. “On Slack, on our private channels — or secret ones where there’d be no one from management. ‘It could be me because of this and this and this,’ or like, ‘My job seems pretty redundant.’”

Still, content had to be created. Sarah herself was trying to report a story after the impending layoffs were announced, with bleak results. “I was calling experts for the story, doing interviews,” she says, “and I was just kind of like, ‘Will I even be able to write this? What the hell’s the point?’”

That story, along with dozens of her other projects and story ideas, vanished just days later. At noon on a Thursday, she was called into a conference room and informed she was being laid off, and her company Google account — including her Google Drive — had been deactivated before she made it back to her desk.

* * *

The mental anguish of employment uncertainty isn’t something most people like to broadcast; for most people, it’s a relatively private hell. But one thing Brand finds in her research is that layoff-season misery does indeed love layoff-season company.

“If a lot of other people are losing their jobs around you,” she says, “or there’s a macroeconomic context — in which job loss has become something that’s within the national consciousness, or something that’s occurring to a lot of workers — there’s less internalization of self-blame and potentially less of a psychological impact.”

For me, and I’m sure for many other media and tech workers this year, this rings true. Before I got laid off, I found solace in the fact that virtually everyone in my industry was worried about their job; after I got laid off, I found solace in the fact that some of my colleagues — talented ones, hardworking ones, popular and well-liked ones — were now also unemployed.

But for some, the dovetailing notions that “You’re not alone” and “It’s not your fault” make it worse, not better.

“Even before anyone was actually laid off, the message they were sending was that this had nothing to do with performance. We knew it was a money thing,” Sarah says of her layoff. But in the meantime, that meant staring down the demoralizing possibility that she and her colleagues could lose their jobs even if they were great at them.

“You’re supposed to be so loyal to these companies. You get trained to feel like you’re part of this team,” she says. “But it was like a reminder of how, wow, truly no boss will ever care about you.”

The Anxiety of Waiting to Be Laid Off